A Photographic Passion

ImageCynthia Manuszak is a freelance photographer with a passion for social issues. When I first contacted her on the phone for the details of a story, I assumed I was talking to a college student. But the innocence of her youthful voice hides her maturity. Her younger years were, at best, chaotic. Traumatized by the divorce of her parents, she became a high school dropout and a teenage mother. As Cynthia puts it, she “screwed up”.  As an adult she’s been the victim of domestic violence so extreme that it shattered both her ear drums, she’s lived on motel drive, and she’s raised children while dealing with an addicted spouse serving time in prison.

A few years ago, Cynthia turned things around. Determined to reverse the chaotic path of her life, she went to college and got a Bachelor’s degree from Fresno Pacific University. With a lifelong interest in photography, she also decided to finally do something with it, and became a self taught, freelance photographer. While she occasionally works photographing at high schools or sells photos to businesses, her passion centers on social issues, such as homelessness, drug awareness and breast cancer. She also loves working with children, and has had art shows integrating social awareness in Fresno, with others scheduled in the next few months. She uses one of her passions, photography and art, to shine a light on her other passion, social awareness on vital issues.

She contacted Gay Fresno to share a story she’s wanted to share with the LGBT community for 2 years. The incident occurred at The Big Fresno Fair 2 years ago, in 2006, when she entered some of her photos in their annual contest. She came face to face with homophobia. Cynthia is straight, but the homophobic confrontation came about because of one of her photographs.

In 2006, Cynthia consistently saw her next door neighbor and dear friend, Mary Lozano, returning home after undergoing chemo therapy to treat her breast cancer. Inspired by Mary’s struggle, Cynthia asked if she could photograph her for a possible entry for the Fresno Fair photography competition. During the shoot, Cynthia, knowing the deep bond of love that Mary shared with her husband Carlos, asked him to join Mary for a few shots. Weak from her radiation therapy, Mary needed to be in a resting position, resulting in a head shot of the two, in black and white, of Mary lounging while Carlos leans over her to place a gentle kiss on her cheek.

The beautiful photograph touched and inspired Cynthia. She filled with pride when she looked at it and decided it would be the highlight of her entries for the fair. When she talks about Mary, about this picture, Cynthia fills with passion. “I loved the photo so much. The love between them was so incredible that it just came out in the picture. “ She enlarged the photo to 12 X 18, had it matted in pink, the representative color for breast cancer, and entered it in the specific category of “Black & White People” at the Big Fresno Fair. “I was so excited to hear what the judges were going to say.”

The day of the judging, Cynthia eagerly walked to the gallery where her photo of Mary and Carlos would be displayed. Although she had several entries in various categories, she was focused on this particular photograph, which she knew in her heart could take first place. After a quick scan of the entries, however, she couldn’t find it. Worried something had fallen through the cracks, she approached a woman, one of the volunteers, to ask about it.

“You know, I’m looking for one of my entries and I can’t find it,” she said. Cynthia noticed the woman was recording information from one of her photos, seeing her name and information written on the back of the mat. So the volunteer flipped the picture over, but it wasn’t Mary and Carlos. “That’s mine,” Cynthia told her, but that’s not the one I’m looking for. I’m looking for the one that’s in the category of “Black & White People”.”

At the same time Cynthia noticed, under the table, on the opposite end, a photo on the floor, face down. She instantly recognized the pink matting of her photograph of Mary and Carlos. “Oh my God, there it is. I need to get that out on the table. The judges are going around. Can you please hand me my photo?”

“No, I can’t do that,” the woman answered, sharp, with a nervous quality to her. When Cynthia started to move to retrieve the picture, the woman told her she wasn’t allowed in that area.

“Well, why is my photograph upside down on the floor like that?”

“I don’t know,” the woman replied, “maybe it’s too sexual.”

Sexual? As anyone can see from the photograph, (pictured at the beginning of this article – click to enlarge) there’s nothing “sexual” about it.

Not understanding what was going on, and agitated, Cynthia told the woman she wanted her photo. At that point, still not willing to allow Cynthia to get her photograph or explain what was happening, the volunteer summoned Joseph H. Levy, the Superintendent of Fine Arts & Photography. Cynthia saw him approaching and walked toward him, meeting him halfway.

“Why is my photograph on the ground, under the table? Why is it not out on the table for the judging?”

“Look,” he said, “we cannot have a photograph of a gay couple at the Big Fresno Fair. We have too many children coming through here.”

Stunned, Cynthia confronted him in the middle of the gallery, with people starting to watch and listen to their raising voices.  “Excuse me?” Realizing that Levy was under the impression that the photo was of two gay men, she became angry that Mary’s femininity had been put in question. For a woman battling her way through breast cancer, losing her hair, fighting for her life, and grappling with the social implications of a woman possibly losing her breasts to cancer, this was an outrageous thing to say.  Two women, hearing the conversation, moved closer to Cynthia and stared down Levy.

 “Can’t you see that she has lipstick on?” Cynthia said to him.

“Look,” Levy replied, “even queers wear lipstick.”

Cynthia, who supports and embraces the gay community, was floored, as the two women who had stepped up to support her were. One of the women, hands on her hips, became part of the confrontation at that point.

“And so what if it was a gay couple? They’re not doing anything wrong.”

Levy eventually told Cynthia that the only way the photograph would be allowed back in the judging was if some kind of explanation was attached, which is exactly what happened, against Cynthia’s wishes as well as the rules of the competition, which allows only a title and the photographer’s name to be placed next to the photograph when being judged. Levy himself placed a large 5X5 post-it next to the picture, explaining it was a picture of a man and his wife, who had breast cancer. Levy didn’t want anyone to think that the Big Fresno Fair would allow a photograph of a gay couple to be displayed.

Cynthia was still in shock, grappling with her choices. She wanted the photograph to be judged, but she was vehemently opposed to any note of explanation and incredibly angry at the actions of the people running the competition. As Levy walked away, one of the two women who’d come to her aid during the very visible confrontation,  visibly irate at Levy, walked to the table where the photograph was placed with the written note, and ripped the note off the picture and disposed of it. “This is bullshit,” she said. Both women who’d supported Cynthia were themselves photographers with photos entered in the competition, as well as having mother’s who’d battled breast cancer.

The photo of Mary and Carlos was judged, without a written commentary, and went on to take second place in the competition.  After the competition, when Cynthia relayed the story to Mary, (who is now doing well) suggested that Cynthia have an art show and display the photograph. Later, in the middle of the night, Cynthia awoke suddenly, sat up, and had a sort of epiphany, and decided to have an art show on the theme of breast cancer, and to call it The Pink Show.  And for the past two years she’s done just that, holding the show at the Sorenson Gallery here in Fresno. She’s doing it again this year, on September 20th, at Bentley’s. All the information, as well as the details on other upcoming exhibits Cynthia is involved with, are at the end of this article.

Although her photograph was given a second place that year, Cynthia struggled with whether to return to the fair and support a group with such clear prejudices. She did return once, in 2007, driven by her art and the reluctance to let Levy feel he “won” the battle. She displayed her photographs centering on homelessness, another civic passion, but has no plans to return to the competition in 2008.

Ironically, the confrontation with Levy was the genesis for The Pink Show, and reaffirmed Cynthia’s passion for photography and activism…

I contacted the Fresno Fair offices and was able to speak with Mr. Joseph H. Levy regarding this incident. Mr. Levy acknowledged the incident had taken place. He remembered it clearly. He said it was thought that the photo was of a gay couple, one man kissing the other on the cheek, and that since there are about 20-25,000 school children who visit the fair and it’s exhibits, he felt the photo was not appropriate. He also wanted to make it clear that he is emphatically against censorship, but he, as the Supervisor of Fine Arts & Photography, has to be prudent in which pieces are allowed on display in an atmosphere where children are involved. He referenced the Robert Mapplethorpe  controversy.  I pointed out that while some of Mapplethorpe’s work pictured graphic nudity and other graphic images, this photograph did nothing of the kind, that it was simply a head shot of two people, and asked if all photographs involving gay people would be disqualified. He stated that because the two people were looking at each other and there was a kiss on the cheek, that it was deemed inappropriate. He stated he’d probably make the same decision today. He did want to point out, as we’ve explained in the story, that once the content of the photo was explained, it was allowed back in the show. He does not remember attaching a note to the photo to allow it to be judged. He asked me if I’d seen the photo and what my impression was, and I told him that it clearly is a photo of a man and a woman and I saw no sexual overtones in the picture. I told him it was obvious that the woman was wearing lipstick and he replied “Well, some men wear lipstick as well.”


Cynthia would like to acknowledge The Sorenson Gallery @2205 Van Ness in Fresno, which has hosted The Pink Show the last two years.

Image(click to enlarge image)Cynthia would also like to acknowledge artist BeBe Long, who created the artwork for the posters for The Pink Show. BeBe’s original paintings of strikingly recognizable style and gorgeous colors are primarily acrylic on canvas. You can see BeBe’s art on her website at  www.bebelongfineart.com 

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in the United States, other than skin cancer. It is the second leading cause of cancer death in women, after lung cancer. Visit this link for more information:   American Cancer Society – All About Breast Cancer  

The Pink Show for 2008 will be held on September 20, 2008 at Bentley’s The Fresh Market in the River View Shopping Center at the corner of Fort Washington and Friant in Clovis. The Pink Show focuses on breast cancer awareness, and includes a photo and art exhibit, a live auction, a wine sale, appetizers and various speakers. Expected to attend are Sheriff Margaret Mims, Stefani Booroojian from KSEE24 , John Tull from the Fresno Falcons will be the emcee, and Tracy Correa from The Fresno Bee . Gold’s Gym , in the same shopping center, will be participating by giving out pink t-shirts and gym membership trials.

The Crystal Show is scheduled for October 17th, 2008, 5-9PM in the Banker’s Ballroom at Fresno Pacific Towers downtown (formerly the Security Bank Building), located at 1060 Fulton Mall. This show is a cultural event featuring local artists, musicians and guest speakers dedicated to addressing the problem of crystal meth and other drugs devastating our community. Expected to appear are Chief of Police Jerry Dyer, Sheriff Margaret Mims, John Tull with the Fresno Falcons  will emcee, and Mayoral candidates Henry Perea and Ashley Swearengin.


The Pink Show Website  

The Crystal Show Website  

Valley411 Website – Local Artist Cynthia Manuszak  

Valley411 – Cynthia Manuszak Photo Gallery  

KSEE24 Breast Cancer Buddy Check  

Fresno Fair Art & Photography Winners 2006  

Fresno Fair Photography Exhibit Guidelines 2007  

The Big Fresno Fair Website  

ABC 30 Coverage of Art For The Homeless 2007

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